An Interview with Jess Row

Jess Row is the author of “The Train to Lo Wu.

“The Secrets of Bats” tells of an American man teaching at a Hong Kong school for girls who becomes drawn into the life of one of his students, a girl who seems to have acquired the bats' sense of echolocation, the ability to find her way via sound waves. It's a spellbinding tale, brilliantly told. To read it is to go somewhere you have never quite gone before in fiction.

A winner of the coveted Whiting Award, Row has taught for Gotham Writers' Workshop and currently teaches at Montclair State University. Row is so talented at both writing and teaching, we felt compelled to ask him a few questions.

GWW: “The Secrets of Bats” has a truly bizarre premise—a teenage girl obsessed with echolocation. What inspired this idea?

ROW: That part just came to me all at once. I have no idea what inspired it exactly. The much more difficult part was figuring out how I could work that premise into a story about Hong Kong, since I'd decided that was the project I wanted to work on at the time. It finally came to me that the silence involved in echolocation (that is, the lack of conventional human communication) could be compared to the awkward gaps in conversation between two people who don't speak each other's language very well. And teenagers—well, teenagers are very good at seeking out alternative means of accomplishing things that can't be done in conventional ways. It didn't seem so odd to me that a grieving teenage girl would find echolocation attractive.

GWW: Your writing is distinctive; it really doesn't look or feel like anyone else's work. In “The Secrets of Bats,” for example, you have unusual paragraph breaks, the dialogue is not in quotation marks, and the whole thing has an elliptical style that feels very Asian, even though neither you nor the story's narrator is Asian. Do you consciously try to be “different” in your writing?

ROW: “The Secrets of Bats” is a little more unconventional, I think, than any of the other stories in this collection. Maybe that and “The American Girl.” The form came straight out of the material, and, to a certain extent, the setting. At first in writing about Hong Kong I was trying to depict a place that was to me both extremely alien and uncannily familiar—a place with a certain dream-like quality. So the writing had to communicate that feeling. As I became a little more familiar with the city my writing about it became a little more concrete, and you see that in stories like “For You” and “The Ferry,” which were written later. But I never lost my sense of wonder that such a place could exist—I still haven't.

GWW: “The Secret of Bats” is deeply philosophical and yet this element is woven into a taut, even suspenseful, tale of intrigue. It's a fascinating mix, and very likely this is why the story has drawn such attention. What's your aim when you write a story? To enlighten? To enthrall? Or do you think about an aim at all?

ROW: No, there's no aim other than to make the material come alive and the language come alive. That's not to say that at a certain point you don't wonder about philosophical or political concerns—sometimes those concerns hang you up and keep you from going forward. At least that's my experience. In this collection many of the stories have some secondary level of intellectual inquiry, and it's very important to me that whatever questions the story raises—about race and affirmative action, about the relationship between men from one society and women from another, about Zen practice—aren't just left up in the air by the end. Sometimes that happens naturally; sometimes it takes a lot of effort to weave those issues into the story without sounding pedantic or interrupting the drama. Ultimately the encounter between these characters in this particular situation has to take precedence over everything else.

GWW: Faulkner wrote about Yoknapatawpha County, Dickens wrote about London. All of the stories in your collection The Train to Lo Wu are related to Hong Kong, where you lived for a few years. Did you go to Hong Kong to find stories, or was it something else that drew you there?

ROW: No no no! First of all, those aren't accurate analogies, because I'm not native to Hong Kong. There are writers (Chinese writers) who use Hong Kong as their primary territory because they grew up there, and the best, in my opinion, are Xi Xi, Xu Xi, and Leung Ping-kwan. In my own case I went to Hong Kong because I had a teaching fellowship after college, and I wanted to use my time there to work on the stories I was already writing—stories mostly set in Baltimore, where I went to high school. I had a vision of myself as an expatriate writer, like Hemingway in Paris writing the Nick Adams stories. When I got to Hong Kong it quickly became clear to me that it wasn't going to work out that way. The city itself was so challenging, so alien, so insulting to my sensibilities (at first) that I couldn't just shut it out and go on writing the way I had before. On the other hand, I knew that I didn't want to write about it as a typical Western observer of “exotic” Asian customs, as, for example, Paul Theroux does in Kowloon Tong. Hong Kong had just been “returned” to China when I arrived there in 1997, and the city was changing from a place where Westerners were in charge to one in which they played a peripheral role at best. The stories I began writing dealt with people on that periphery—painters, teachers, researchers—and gradually I worked up the courage to write stories about Chinese people in which Westerners played no role at all. But I would never say that I developed a comprehensive vision of the city. I don't know if it's possible for anyone to do that, because Hong Kong is such a shape-shifting place.